Dr Jim Swan Remembered with Industry Award
The contribution of one of the most accomplished scientific and technical advisers to the whisky industry is to be recognised with a new annual award as part of the Scottish Whisky Awards annual celebrations.
Dr Jim Swan had a forty-year career as a research scientist and trusted adviser to whisky distilleries around the world prior to his sudden death in 2017, aged 75. His tireless work to collaborate, encourage and steer whisky producers to pursue excellence in whisky production has been universally admired by the industry as they have mourned his loss over recent years.
2021 - Sheila Burtles
Sheila Burtles has been voted by leaders in the Scotch whisky industry to receive the first ever Jim Swan Award for Services to Scotch Whisky. The award which launched in 2019, recognises the careers of unsung heroes working in Scotch whisky to collaborate for the benefit for the industry.
Sheila Burtles, aged 92, worked for Pentlands Research (now the Scotch Whisky Research Institute) as a sensory scientist, first joining the organisation in mid 1970s. Her most famous achievement is as co-inventor of the first ever Scotch Whisky Flavour Wheel in 1979. Working with Dr Jim Swan, she created a new visual tool and shaped a new language used in the assessment and understanding of whisky.
Known as the Pentlands Wheel, the device was a world first and became a global success. It has been developed into many new modern versions over decades by authors, academics, and major whisky brands worldwide. Subsequent evolutions have even been seen in the development of flavour in brewing, coffee, wine and chocolate industries.
Ms Burtles received her award in a private presentation at her home in Edinburgh hosted by Charlie Maclean, the renowned whisky expert and judge in the Scottish Whisky Awards. He commented;
“It is with the greatest possible pleasure that I have been asked to present this award. I first met Sheila in 1992 when I was invited to a course which she was giving on sensory skills and without a word of a lie this course changed my life. She really is an unsung hero of the Scotch whisky industry. She deserves immense credit for making the link between chemistry and the language we use to describe flavour and for being the first to display it in a wheel. This idea was taken up very rapidly taken up all over the world. She really is a wonderful person and deserves every recognition.”
Kirsten Speirs, Director of KDMedia which runs the Scottish Whisky Awards, commented,
“The Scottish Whisky Awards team is proud to recognise Sheila Burtles’ career as a pioneer in the Scotch whisky industry. Sheila was a trailblazing scientist who used her own formidable skills to give students the confidence to identify flavour and aroma. Sheila successfully combined a career with family life way ahead of her time and was unphased by her regular appearance as the sole female in a distillery. Instead, Sheila was confident in her knowledge, bold in her approach and often audacious in the interests of progress. The Scotch Whisky Flavour Wheel is far from being Sheila’s only achievement but should be remembered as a global success which serves as another reminder of why Scotland is the world’s leading whisky nation.”
Sheila Burtles is a sensory expert who was the first ever female scientist to advise Scotch Whisky distillery companies about flavour. Her work, experience and knowledge gained over decades as a consultant to the industry, serve as a living legacy of everything we understand about the language of flavour used in Scotch whisky today.
She was instrumental in the creation of Pentlands Whisky Research which in 1976 formed as a collaboration of 6 distillery companies who agreed to share scientific research and results in Scotch whisky production.
Her most famous achievement is as co-inventor of the first ever Whisky Flavour Wheel in 1979. Working with Dr Jim Swan, she created a new visual tool and shaped a new language used in the assessment and understanding of whisky. The wheel became a global success, and it has been developed into many new modern versions over decades by authors, academics, and major whisky brands worldwide. Subsequent evolutions have even been seen in the development of flavour in the coffee, wine and brewing industries.
In its early days, the Whisky Flavour Wheel was an important part of training delivered by Sheila Burtles and her colleague, Dr Swan as they toured distilleries throughout the 1980s and 1990s. They were a highly respected team dispatched to test, teach and train people on flavour and the role of chemistry in whisky maturation.
Born in Edinburgh in 1929, Sheila Burtles was educated at George Watsons College and graduated from Edinburgh University. Aged 22, she earned a Fulbright Scholarship to LeHigh University in Pennysylvania, USA but returned to Scotland to an apprenticeship role with Edinburgh City Analysts working in a laboratory in the West End of the City.
She progressed to Inveresk Research where she analysed the role of chemistry in understanding food and drink. It was here that her team was first approached by a whisky company which had a problem with wood and flavour. This became a pivotal moment in the direction of her career.
Her most influential years were spent working directly with Dr Jim Swan at Pentland Research, latterly known as the Scotch Whisky Research Institute. While Jim Swan was the chemistry expert, Sheila concentrated on encouraging individuals to appreciate their own sense of taste through her own series of tests. Her interests were in understanding what people tasted and she was determined to give them the confidence to help identify it. She championed her belief that whatever we taste as individuals is always right. There are no wrongs.
She is endlessly fascinated by the dynamic interaction of taste and memory. She once presented a student with a brown bottle which he duly sniffed and declared the word, “Grandma.” Turned out, Grandma used to take this young man to Church every Sunday when she would present him with a cinnamon ball to stop him fidgeting. The bottle of cinnamon had woken a memory and had taken him back to that very occasion in a matter of seconds.
Identifying sensory skills in people was her passion and she famously made the career of one young junior distillery worker who had been sent to the train station to collect her. In the journey to the distillery, she struck up a conversation about taste and persuaded him to take a sensory test. In reviewing his scores, she discovered a talent for identifying and communicating flavour and his career flourished. He became the distillery’s most dependable sensory expert, sent to nose casks throughout the warehouse and report back to management.
In other breakthroughs, she also persuaded Jim Swan to welcome new individuals onto their training courses for the first time. Training had previously been the privilege of distillery staff, but she was curious when she met a young journalist keen to learn the ways of sensory science. Interested in his perspective, Sheila persuaded the bosses at Pentland to welcome the journalist on the course, and so continued the career of a young Mr Charles Maclean.
Burtles and Swan were a formidable and good-humoured team. She remembers how she was famously referred to as ‘Bumbles’ in training sessions in reference to her awkward surname which was regularly mistaken for something else. She enjoyed the humour and the jostling; she was unphased by her regular appearance as the sole female in a distillery. Instead, she was confident in her knowledge, bold in her approach and often audacious in the interests of progress.
While she was dedicated to her career, her personal life also flourished. She met a young doctor while on holiday with friends in Spain and married Dick Burtles in 1959. Dr Burtles was a paediatrician and became a highly respected doctor at the Royal Hospital for Sick Children in Edinburgh. They had two daughters, Sally and Emma, and settled in Scotland where Sheila continued her career in whisky and her husband developed his work as an anaesthetist, specialising in heart surgery. The joke was regularly made that she had the anaesthetic which everyone wanted.
Now at the grand age of 92, Sheila Burtles has accepted the Dr Jim Swan Award for Services to Scotch Whisky and it has been presented to her at her home in Edinburgh. The commissioned statue made from aged whisky casks, joins a fascinating collection of memorabilia, including a framed copy of the famous original Whisky Flavour Wheel which hangs on the wall.
2022 - Pip Hills
The founder of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SWMS) is to receive a significant lifetime achievement award for services to Scotch Whisky at a national awards celebration which takes place in a few weeks’ time.
Pip Hills will be presented with the Dr Jim Swan Award at the 4th annual Scottish Whisky Awards in recognition of his trailblazing efforts to create what is now the world’s largest whisky club with over 35,000 members.
Hills famously started the Society when he drove to Speyside and collected a quarter sherry cask of Glenfarclas which he shared with a few friends. The friends became a syndicate who bought casks of malt whisky for their own enjoyment and then proceeded to uncover the superior taste of full-strength, unfiltered whisky straight from the cask.
In 1983, they opened their syndicate to the public and created The Scotch Malt Whisky Society. To house their Society, they bought The Vaults in Leith, which remains home to the SMWS to this day. Hills retains his card, marked member number 001, and despite leaving the Society in the late 1990s, is widely credited as its entrepreneurial founder for his idea, vision and drive to make the Society a success.
Alan Wolstenholme, Chair of the Judging Panel, commented,
"Without Pip's pioneering vision, almost forty years ago, whereby he enabled enthusiasts to participate in sampling single casks of malt whisky from a wide range of distilleries, it is unlikely that today's widely available offering of single malts from an ever-expanding number of distilleries, would exist.
“His enthusiasm for promoting Single Barrel Malt, the most traditional and highest quality type of Scotch, has helped Scotch Whisky continue to be front and centre as the number one whisky of choice around the world.”
In retirement, Pip Hills is a successful author and regularly speaks at SMWS events. He has recently spoken for the Society in Paris and plans to travel to the USA next year to deliver a number of speaking engagements as part of the Society’s 40th anniversary in 2023.
Pip Hills commented;
“Well, it’s rather amusing to be receiving a swanky award when for many years I think I was the most detested man in the whisky industry, for we were expanding at a time when they were declining. However, these days, I am immensely proud of what the Society has achieved in Scotland and around the world. In particular, I am impressed by the quality of the staff of the Society: they are smart, knowledgeable and self-confident without being condescending. They are warm and friendly and great ambassadors for Scotch Whisky and for Scotland. I look forward to receiving the award and seeing some old friends at the event.”
David Ridley, Managing Director of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society, commented;
“Having Pip return to the fold within the SMWS, the whisky club he founded in 1983, has been a huge personal pleasure for me, everyone at the Society, and of course our passionate membership – especially as we look ahead to our landmark 40th anniversary and reflect on where we came from and our origins with Pip and his pals. His vision, curiosity, adventurousness, dare I say even bloody-mindedness, about doing something that the wider industry at the time said was impossible, are all part of the Society’s ethos – as much today as they ever were. Pip continues to inspire us and all our members with his stories, his passion and his imagination. His contribution to the wider whisky world is immeasurable, as is his contribution to the sheer joy to be found in sharing incredible whiskies between members and friends around the world. Lang may his lum reek!”
Pip Hills will accept the award in front of over 300 leaders from the Scottish Whisky industry at the 4th annual Scottish Whisky Awards which takes place on 30 November 2022 at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre. Book your table today.
Pip Hills, by Pip Hills.
Founder of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society
When I was young, I was obsessed with mountaineering. As a student I made the first ascent of the outside of the Scott monument and was briefly put in jail for my trouble. I nearly died in a fall and while recuperating shifted my obsession to philosophy, which I studied for seven years at Glasgow and Edinburgh Universities. I then went straight for a bit and became a civil servant: an Inspector of Taxes, no less. Having learned about money courtesy of the Inland Revenue, after nearly five years I left and more-or-less by accident found myself with a large and successful professional practice as a poacher. I had a lot of friends in places high and low (some very high, some very low indeed). In 1977 I assembled some friends to bid for the STV licence at the Independent Broadcasting Authority, for which we raised £7.5 million with which to buy the incumbents. Somewhat to my relief (I don’t watch television) we didn’t get the licence. After the STV business (which brought a lot more friends) I discovered the finest malt whisky at a small farm in Aberdeenshire. Inspired, I formed a syndicate of friends to buy a quarter cask of Glenfarclas, for which the demand was so great – among friends of the friends – that we formed The Scotch Malt Whisky Society and brought single-cask, unfiltered whisky to a world whose interest in Scotch whisky was declining.
This story has been covered in my 2019 book, “The Founder’s Tale” in which I recall the Society’s early history, growth of membership, and attempts at global domination. Its success was achieved in part by some remarkable publicity in which the Society was featured in high readership newspapers in the UK, the USA and France. Whisky fans were impressed by the quality of the whisky and the story behind the Society and the membership base grew at a tremendous rate. The strategy for The Society was to be an advocate for the appreciation and promotion of Scotch whisky in its purest form. Our early work created widescale appreciation of the single cask, now sold worldwide as a mainstream prestige product across the Scotch Malt whisky industry.
Foolishly, I left the management of the company to others, seeing my job as being to promote the excellence of the product and expand the membership of the Society. By the mid-1990s the overdraft caused alarm at our bank, which threatened foreclosure. Enemies gathered (I had acquired a lot of those) and my head was the price of a rescue. Fortunately, I had lots of other, more amusing, things to do and have since written three books which have met with approval. The Society went through two changes of ownership over the next two decades. In 2018, I was approached by the current management, who asked if I would consider returning to the fold. I met the new people, liked them a lot, and did so. Now I swan about, talk to Society members at grand functions and drink a lot of very good whisky. I am recently back from Paris and there is talk of a tour of the USA next year as part of the Society’s 40th anniversary celebrations. Having reached the age of 82, I view the future as evidence that there is no such thing as natural justice and do so with equanimity.
About the Scotch Malt Whisky Society
The Scotch Malt Whisky Society started life in Edinburgh in 1983, founded by Pip Hills and a group of his pals who shared a passion for the discovery and appreciation of whisky in its purest form – drawn from a single cask. We’re now the world’s largest whisky society, but that passion and nose for sensational spirits still guides everything we do.
The exploration of flavour and sharing our discoveries is what we’re all about. Our members enjoy exclusive access to whiskies hand-picked by our expert Tasting Panel, from over 150 distilleries in Scotland and beyond. We bottle them at cask strength and offer a constant variety. How you drink them is entirely up to you.
As hosts of the world’s most entertaining whisky experiences, we also bring our members together to share their passion, at tasting events, festivals, at our Members’ Rooms and international partner bars.
Photography: By Mike Wilkinson